The Anthropocene in Berlin

Live spiders perform
Live spiders perform

I am writing this from Berlin, where I am for a long weekend of talks and performances on the idea of the Anthropocene: the notion that we no longer live in the Holocene but in a new geological era which is defined by the immense impact of one species (humans) upon earth. The concept was not meant to promote the exceptionalism of Homo sapiens, not to glorify humans at the expense of all other species and of the earth in general. It rather wishes to do the opposite. To sound the alarm, to warn of the catastrophic consequences of human action or rather of the commodification of the earth’s components and features. The concept also wishes to create a space around which we can rethink the experience of modernity as a whole, and conceive new ideas of living.

The events are being held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (, an amazing performance space, and the general title is “The Anthopocene Project: A Report”. It is the culmination of a two-year project on the matter. A working group was formed to submit a formal proposal to the Geological Society, that a term should be officially accepted as part of the scientific nomenclature. In addition, the project leaders had invited various scholars and artists to produce new work inspired by this idea. As a speaker commented last night, it does not really matter whether the Geological Society accepts the proposal or not, since the idea of the Anthropocene is out there in the world, doing work, and having an impact. Yesterday, on the way to the airport, I picked up the “Guardian”, and here it was, the Anthropocene event was front page news, and with extensive and detailed coverage. The title of the event also evokes Franz Kafka and his 1917 story “A Report to an Academy”. As with other Kafka stories, this is an exploration of the boundaries between humanity and animality: an ape gives a speech in front of a body of academicians, describing how he learnt to perform the human. The series of events of the Anthropocene may start with the biological and the geological but move swiftly to social, performative, and cultural understandings of humanity, animality, materiality and time.

My contribution, a performance-lecture to he held on Saturday morning, is part of a series of events called “A Matter Theatre”. This theme is based on the idea that thinking around and about the Anthropocene is not only the job of geologists or natural scientists but also scholars and artists from diverse disciplines, and that anthropologists, archaeologists, cultural studies specialists, art practitioners and others have a lot to offer in this conversation. I will be talking in a session on corporeality, and I will present ideas deriving from the book “Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect”, which came out earlier this year. It was gratifying to hear the organisers saying that the book “has been deeply intellectually formative for the conversations we have had in developing the positions presented by “A Matter Theater”. It goes on to show that a configured, non-anthropocentric, experiential and sensorial archaeology, with its insights deriving from the intense and sustained exploration of and engagement with matter and with time, can fertilise contemporary debates on the essence of life, and can address concerns on how to experience the world.

The inquiry into the Anthropocene thus becomes something more than an attempt to address the climate change challenge and the environmental crisis. It becomes a broader challenge of rethinking the constitution of anthropos in modernity, and confronting the racial, social, sensorial, disciplinary and archaeological hierarchies and orders that came with this constitution. If life is what is in danger by the contemporary anthropocenic order, then the challenge is to come up with other ways of being, new forms of experiencing life. Archaeologists can and should take up this challenge. As one of the organisers told me a few minutes ago, for him, anthropology and archaeology are now doing the work that philosophy used to do. I am inclined to think that he is right.

Last night’s highlight was an installation of live spiders which had constructed a very elaborate web, fitted with hyper-sensitive microphones. The tiniest moment was broadcast to the auditorium, emitting an impressive, thunderous sound, which forced you to stop and take notice: a different conception of multi-species sensoriality was foregrounded, and the performance space was taken over, at least temporarily, by non-human agents. More exciting events are to be expected in the next couple of days!

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